Thinking = Plotting

18 Aug

A Guest Post by Marina Cohen


I’m often asked how long it took me to write my first novel. It’s an easy enough question. You’d think the response would be fairly straightforward, right? Not so much. In fact, by the time I’m finished I’m sure people wish they hadn’t asked.

I start by saying it took me six months to write my first novel—because that’s how long I spent hammering away at the keys of my old computer to turn the idea floating around my head into pixels. Most smile, satisfied with that response, but then I tell them I’m not finished. I go on to say it took me nine more months to rewrite the exact same story—just to get it right. This is when they begin to nod politely and back away. Hold on, I say. I’m not done yet. I spent another four years editing, revising, submitting, getting rejected, revising some more, editing again, re-submitting, getting truckloads of rejections, before I finally got my very first contract. And then it took another year before I held my novel in my hot little hands. At this point they turn to run but I give chase. Wait! That’s not the whole story! You’re going to miss the most important part! Because before my fingers ever grazed a keyboard, I spent ten years thinking.

Ten years.



So what exactly was I thinking about? Well, my plot, of course.

For me thinking is synonymous with plotting. Even now, five novels later, I need to think out my entire story before I can begin to write the first word. There are all sorts of different plotting graphs and styles, but honestly, it all boils down to thinking.

My family has gotten used to it—that glazed look in my eye, the vague responses, the rich scent of burnt toast filling the air when my brain has abandoned the real world and entered the world of my current work-in-progress.

Now, I’m not a meticulous plotter in the sense that I don’t sketch out every chapter, nor do I use charts or configurations. But there are elements I must work out in my mind, or the idea just goes into a folder to revisit at a later date. Here’s what I need to know prior to writing:

  1. What’s the inciting incident?  What propels my MC off their path and spins them in a totally different direction? Of course this incident can be subtle, but I like to make it something quick and dramatic to hook readers.
  2. I must know how my story will end. This is critical, so that I can work toward setting up the climax and ending, building it, moving toward it with every detail. If you don’t know how your story will end, you can plod forward, but I think you may end up doing a fair amount of re-writing. I like to have a twist ending—something readers don’t see coming. And I also like to connect my ending in some significant way to my inciting incident.
  3. I divide my plot into three chunks—that three act structure I’m sure you’ve already come across. And each chunk ends in its own climax, spinning the story in a different direction again, but bringing the reader that much closer to the ultimate climax.
  4. Finally, it’s important to remember that plot does not simply refer to the events of your story. It’s also (and in some ways more importantly) about the emotional journey of your character. Who are they at the start of the story and how they change as a result of the events of the story.

Now, even though I have all this in my mind, when I sit down to actually write my story, more often than not, it takes unexpected turns. Characters I hadn’t imagined muscle their way into my manuscript uninvited—and it’s usually these surprise twists and characters that I end up loving the most.

So I sit. And I think. And I think some more. I think while I cook and clean and shop—but never while I drive, er, ’cause that would be dangerous. Ahem.

I think while I’m awake. I think before I go to sleep. And I even think in my dreams—which, by the way, often provides me with the best answers to my plot problems!

So the next time you’re just sitting there staring off into space and someone asks you what you’re up to—you tell them not to disturb you. Can’t they see you’re busy plotting your next incredible novel?


Marina Cohen is the author of several works of fiction and non-fiction for both children and teens, including three middle-grade novels: SHADOW OF THE MOON, TRICK OF THE LIGHT, and CHASING THE WHITE WITCH; and two teen novels: GHOST RIDE and MIND GAP. GHOST RIDE (Dundurn Press, 2009) was voted Honour Book of the 2011 Red Maple Fiction Award.


14 Responses to “Thinking = Plotting”

  1. Diyana Wan August 18, 2011 at 4:43 AM #

    *exhales sigh of relief*

    OMG Marina, your post couldn’t have come at a better time!

    I’ve spent maybe the past 3 – 4 years thinking / plotting, and just yesterday, when I was about to share the synopsis of my novel with the world, I realised there were planet-sized plot holes (I haven’t quite grasped those exact 5 points you mentioned) and was forced to think/plot once more.

    I can’t help thinking that perhaps I am slow, that perhaps I’m not cut out to be a writer…because all the writers I follow online seem to go from inspiration to first draft completion in the blink of an eye! Of course I should’ve known that all writers have different styles. I definitely fall into the “needs a decade of stewing” category.

    So…thank you so so much for the post, for showing me I’m not the only one, and really, just for being so darn inspiring!

    (Also, I might need to use that last line — “Busy Plotting Bestseller”. On a hat maybe?)

    • marina cohen August 18, 2011 at 11:01 AM #

      Hi Diyana! So nice to hear from you! Funny, I don’t feel particularly inspirational! 🙂 I actually sit and think the same thing as you when I see just how quickly some writers can produce a trilogy, let alone a novel! I’m a slow writer–it takes me about an hour to write a paragraph. Sometimes I can do more, sometimes less. It depends if I’m sure I know what will happen next. Which brings me back to plotting and thinking!! 😀 But remember, you can get stuck doing to much plotting/thinking too and never sit down to write. I think once you have the “major” points worked out, sit down and write and then let yourself be surprised by the direction you take. You don’t need everything (and I honestly don’t like to have everything) worked out. Some people have the entire thing worked out, but I like to let stuff come to me as I write as well–and seriously, it’s often this stuff that will be your best writing! So sit yourself down and begin! It will be awesome!

  2. farawayfarrah August 18, 2011 at 8:02 AM #

    Brilliant, brilliant post.
    I relate to it completely, I’ve tried penning some stuff. i have a few scenes here and there, but I still feel like I can’t sit down and do all the writing, because I’m not done with the plotting yet.
    Everyday day or so i think about my characters, the universe I created, and I tweak things a lot.
    One thing that doesn’t change is the beginning and the end.
    Thank you so much for your helpful post.

    • marina cohen August 18, 2011 at 11:05 AM #

      Yes FarawayFarrah! You totally get me! I need that beginning and that end–and honestly–these rarely change. But if you have some of the middle worked out you can begin and then let the characters (sometimes ones you never expected!) take you on their journey! It is definitely more difficult when you are world-building as you need to know your world well. But I say go for it! (and then re-write til the cows come home!)

  3. Asia Morela August 18, 2011 at 10:22 AM #

    YES! That’s exactly it. 😀 I do the same thing. I have to get my story right in my head before I write it, though of course it’s not a linear process; I always modify things or go back once I’ve started writing. But I rarely write down all these things, so from the outside it *may* look as if I’m moving blindly forward…

    I posted an entry not long ago with meant to say more or less the same thing:

    • marina cohen August 18, 2011 at 11:09 AM #

      Hi Asia! It’s funny that you say that, because whenever people ask me if I plot, my first response is no, because I don’t chart things or write them all down (okay, sometimes scribbles on pieces of paper that my husband usually throws out! ah!) So it looks like I’m moving ahead blindly, but I’m not. I have those key points worked out and I’m always moving toward them. Having these worked out also means I’m not meandering with scenes, characters, descriptions that don’t move my plot forward! That’s another benefit of knowing major plot points in advance–you will produce a sleak manuscript where everything is there to move the plot forward!

  4. Savannah J. Foley August 18, 2011 at 1:33 PM #

    Lol I think while driving all the time. More specifically, I think while driving and singing. I’ve got to be singing to really get the ideas flowing.

    • marina cohen August 18, 2011 at 4:29 PM #

      Shhh! Savanah! Just don’t admit to it!!! 😀 I swear I’ve arrived (safely, I’m happy to say!) wondering how I got there…but with an awesome solution to a plot problem!!!

  5. Martha Ramirez August 18, 2011 at 3:09 PM #

    Thank you so much for this! I am brainstorming my next project and I think this will come in handy.

    • marina cohen August 18, 2011 at 4:32 PM #

      Martha! Try searching youtube for the Plot Whisperer! Her videos are the best! I’ve only watched the first 4 of 27, (using her tips for my new wip!) but the lady is amazing! If you can’t find her, I’ll dig up the link! I think her name is Martha also!

  6. Susan August 19, 2011 at 1:54 AM #

    Oh my gosh, Marina, I read your post and was just NODDING the whole time. That glassy look in my eye–oh how the hubby recognizes it.

    “What’re you thinking about?” he’ll ask.

    “Oh, I just finally figured how I’m gonna get Eleanor to the train station when the zombies arrive.”

    “Right, well…carry on then.” And then he’ll flee because if there’s one thing I like to do in addition to pondering my story it’s to TALK about it and bounce ideas. Fortunately, my dog is an excellent listener. 😉

    Great post!!

    • marina cohen August 19, 2011 at 2:36 PM #

      LOL! Susan! I just forced my husband to listen to my fourth first page of new WIP last night! He obliged and was dutifully positive, but then I began the analysis with him and he ducked into the bathroom! And btw–we are kindred spirits! My novel Mind Gap has zombies on a train!!! Go railroad zombies!!!

  7. linda August 19, 2011 at 3:07 AM #

    YES! LOVE this post. I spend a lot of time thinking about my story ideas too, and I can’t seem to start writing unless I have all the main parts worked out in my head and organized on paper. I think it’s a habit I developed from those days of thinking about English papers for days and days and then sitting down to outline and write the entire thing in one pass the night before it’s due. I find that I figure out a lot of things when I let thoughts brew in my subconscious, and once I’ve got all the pieces, the writing part is sooo much easier. Thanks for the great post!

    • marina cohen August 19, 2011 at 2:39 PM #

      Yes Linda! Subconscious writing is so underrated! Underated? I guess so is spelling 😀

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